Monday, December 28, 2009

Student Turns Class Project Into Community Awareness

By David Staudacher, Rio Salado College PR Manager

“It is because of your love and support that I am here today, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” said a tearful Kelly Stawarski as she addressed family, friends, teachers, and classmates during Rio Salado College’s recent nursing pinning program.

Stawarski, an honor student, was thanking everyone for supporting her during one of the most difficult times of her life — coping with the death of her 19-year-old son. Half way through the rigorous nursing program, tragedy struck the family when her son, Thomas McDermott, died in a car accident.

Overcome with grief, she considered abandoning her life-long dream of becoming a nurse. But her family, friends, classmates and teachers convinced her not to quit and stay in school. In the program, the students are required to complete a community project, and Stawarski immediately knew what she wanted to do for the project.

“In October, I spoke to students at Basha High School, where my son went to school,” said Stawarski. “Alcohol was involved in his accident. And while he wasn’t legally drunk, he also wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. These were two factors that contributed to my son dying.”

During the presentation, she displays the clothes he was wearing at the time of the accident, explains his injuries, and then shows a video of his life, which includes pictures of the accident scene. Students were so moved by her presentation that she received notes and hugs from them thanking her for telling Thomas’ story and expressing how it had impacted them. Teachers at the school were so impressed with her presentation they have asked her to come back two more times so that all students can hear Thomas’ story.

While Stawarski was only required to do one community project for the nursing program, she has decided to continue sharing the story of Thomas’ accident to students and adults. She chose to channel her grief into a community project that not only helped to her to heal, but also allowed her to use the story of Thomas’ accident as a teaching tool.

“At Rio Salado, I learned that nurses do more than care for the sick,” said Stawarski. “They look for a need in the community and look for people to help, and that is what I decided to do, too.”

Recently Stawarski accepted and invitation to bring her presentation to a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) meeting, where she had the opportunity to address more than 250 teens and adults.

“I plan to continue speaking about Thomas’ accident and bring awareness to seatbelt safety and the dangers of drinking and driving,” said Stawarski. “I’m working with my younger son’s junior high to speak there. I would like to continue speaking at the high school and the MADD meetings, too. I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through, and if I get through to one person, it is worth it.”

To learn more about Rio Salado College, visit To have Kelly Stawarski speak at an event, please contact her at